The Disturbing Colonial History of Pumpkin Spice

Genocide, slavery and spices

Thomas Smith
6 min readSep 18


Illustration by the author; Midjourney image & 18th century Dutch engraving (public domain)

Pumpkin spice is all the rage these days. The flavor has become synonymous with fall, and for many people invokes the joy of the changing seasons.

What most people don’t realize, though, is that there’s a dark colonial past behind this seemingly modern, carefree flavor.

It includes slavery, corruption, and genocide. You may never look at a pumpkin spice coffee the same way again.

The Origins of Pumpkin Spice

The concept of “pumpkin spice” as a flavor dates back to 1934.

Companies were beginning to sell canned pumpkin purée, and spice giant McCormick decided to get in on the action by releasing a spice blend specifically for use in pumpkin pie.

Really, though, the origins of what we call “pumpkin spice” go back way further.

Pumpkin spice is typically a blend of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. The first known mention of the blend dates to The Compleat Cook, a 1671 English cookbook that likely inspired America’s early pumpkin recipes. In its recipes for “Pompkin pie,” the book calls for “Cinamon Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves” to season the pie.

Where did the book’s English author get the idea for that warm, autumnal blend? The idea probably comes from speculaas, a Dutch spice blend that dates to even earlier in the 17th century.

But even that isn’t the true origin of the blend. The idea of combining piquant spices into a warming blend isn’t American, English, or Dutch–it’s Southeast Asian.

In India, people have used the spice blend karha–which typically includes nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamom–to flavor masala chai tea since antiquity.

So how did this Southeast Asian spice combo end up in Holland–and ultimately in your 21st-century coffee drink?

It was stolen and brought there by one of the most violent and corrupt colonial entities in history: The Dutch East India Company.

Anything for Spices

The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602 in Holland for one purpose: to exploit the Asian spice trade…



Thomas Smith

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